Based on John Bingham's novel, Five Roundabouts to Heaven, and written by director Sachs with Oren Moverman, Married Life is set in 1949 and tells the story of Harry (Chris Cooper) and Pat (Patricia Clarkson) Allen, a suburban couple who have been married for more than 20 years. Harry is a successful business executive who enjoys smoky, martini-fueled lunches at his club, usually in the company of his best friend Richard Langley (Pierce Brosnan). At one such lunch, Harry confides to Rich that he's having an affair with a flashy platinum blonde named Kay Nesbeth (Rachel McAdams). Rich is surprised to the point of shock by this revelation for interlocking reasons. Harry is an utter straight arrow, not at all the kind of man who would cheat on his wife, or so Rich had presumed. Moreover and more importantly, Harry and Pat seemed to be a happy couple. But nothing and nobody are what they seem in this movie, and that's its most urgent point.
The jokiness of the story commences as Harry confesses his infidelity and his determination to divorce Pat. Harry is frustrated with Pat because she's so focused on their sex life. Pierce Brosnan has Rich take in this information with a raised eyebrow and the slightest twist of his head. Harry's not just a cheater; he's an idiot. In his telling, Kay provides him with a happiness that goes beyond sex, an assertion that's all the more ridiculous because what Harry and Kay do when they sneak away for trysts is entirely about sex. Nonetheless, Harry is determined to marry Kay and concludes with typically sloppy reasoning that the only right thing to do in achieving his ends is to murder Pat, thus putting her out of her misery on the front end. In this regard, Married Life tiptoes to the company of such lighter Alfred Hitchcock fare as Family Plot. A lot of the comedy comes from Harry's clumsy endeavors to get Pat dead. He decides that poison is the way to go and that the perfect place to conceal the death potion is in the digestive powder Pat takes for chronic dyspepsia. The strategy of homicide is to get Pat to eat greasy foods that are sure to give her indigestion.
Much as David Lynch did for small town America in both Blue Velvet and his TV series Twin Peaks, Sachs is out to peel back a facade of uprightness. The picture takes place in the world of TV sitcoms that would dominate American entertainment within a decade of the movie's setting, a world where father knows best, where stay-at-home mom is always dressed as if she's about to go out, her hair coifed, a strand of pearls around her neck, a world where troubles are minor and happiness always triumphs. But in Married Life, the calm exterior of suburban existence is only fresh paint over a rotten structure teaming with termites. Notions such as loyalty, friendship, decency, duty, honor and love are empty concepts. Only hypocrisy reigns, but it is not a hypocrisy that's understood or acknowledged. In pursuing their own ends, people can and will justify anything. These are not new themes, but they are well delivered here.
The offbeat nature of the movie will prevent it from appealing to all viewers, but those moviegoers with an appreciation for talented acting will find special pleasures in Married Life. I have come to look forward to anything Brosnan chooses to do. Behind Sean Connery, he was my favorite Bond, and I like him even better in films like this one, The Matador and The Taylor of Panama. Cooper has a special gift for portraying men who seem to be in control of themselves, but behind whose placid masks lie roiling confusion and contradiction. And Clarkson is just a marvel, an actress of tremendous range and subtlety. Every scene with these players is a master class in performance.